Tuesday, January 16, 2018

By Daniel Ruth, Times Columnist

Bill McBride explained to my wife it would be a little part-time job, just few hours a week coordinating a handful of charitable efforts and civic endeavors for the Holland & Knight law firm. No big deal.

Then, in what seemed about 20 minutes into the work, a woman who was deathly afraid of flying found herself winging around the country expanding existing projects and developing new national programs for the firm. And she learned this about the man who would become her mentor and friend. Bill McBride never thought small.

This will be an awful time for McBride's wife, Alex Sink, and his two children, Bert and Lexi, as they mourn the passing of one of Florida's and the legal profession's influential figures who died Saturday at 67.

Most Floridians will remember McBride for his losing effort to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, as well as being at Sink's side when she won election to become the state's chief financial officer in 2006.

But McBride was much more than a ill-fated candidate. He was a throwback to an earlier era in the practice of law — before lawyers became carnival barkers on the airways selling "justice" as if it was a Popeil pocket fishing rod.

McBride was a devout disciple of Chesterfield Smith, a revered Holland & Knight leader and former president of the American Bar Association. Smith followed a simple mantra: "Do good." And he was grounded in the principle that attorneys have an obligation that transcends providing professional legal services to their clients. Lawyers, Smith fervently believed, have a responsibility to give back to their communities. McBride believed that, too.

Eventually McBride rose to become Holland & Knight's managing partner. It's only a guess, but it is probably fair to say there are few managing partners who would have the chutzpah to stand up at a firm's all-lawyer meeting, as McBride did, and gently chide 1,000 of his partners that they already made enough money.

"You need another boat?"

And he got away with it. Mostly.

He got away with it, mostly, because Bill McBride — at 6-foot-3 and with, let's just call it a well-filled-out frame — cut an imposing and charismatic figure. He could deliver a speech that was both aw-shucks folksy and spellbinding at the same time.

On his watch at Holland & Knight, the firm's charitable efforts extended to the creation of a Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest and a broad swath of mentoring and tutoring programs. The firm dedicated resources to aggressively fund an array of successful pro bono work, including representing survivors of the racially motivated Rosewood Massacre in 1923.

And he thought big. During his time at the helm of Holland & Knight, McBride expanded the reach of the firm nationally and around the globe. But with that growth, some of his critics argued, Holland & Knight's unique culture risked being diluted.

Still, Bill McBride was a successful man and an ambitious one, which led to his disastrous and perplexing run for governor. On the stump, the fiery orator and skilled retail pol was largely missing. The voters never quite saw the gregarious, supremely confident figure who had so dominated his law firm.

He was ill-prepared for his debates with Bush and insisted on trying to sleep in his own bed every night no matter where he was on the campaign trail. And after election night, McBride was assured of waking up in Thonotasassa rather than Tallahassee.

I'm not sure he ever quite got over his thumping at the hands of Bush. But there is always life after an election defeat. McBride joined a smaller firm, worked on Sink's campaigns and doted on his children.

Like any family touched by tragedy, Alex Sink, Bert and Lexi will grieve and go on with their lives. Bert, who is in law school, may not fully realize it at this moment, but he has been given a great gift by his father.

The professional son of Chesterfield Smith typified what a great lawyer should be — dedicated, committed to one's clients and grateful for the chance to serve.

Bill McBride did good. And that's not a bad legacy.

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